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Designer Diary: Pocket Paragons

by Chris Solis

Hey, everyone! My name is Brian McKay, and I’m the designer of Pocket Paragons.

I began the initial design of this game in 2012, and it was quite a journey between then and when it was originally published in 2020. I want to show you the evolution of the game over those years and touch on a lot of the different versions and lessons learned from those scrapped ideas.

Countdown (2012)

Although the game went through a lot of iterations, it started how it ended: as a 1v1 dueling game. I borrowed a mechanism from the old WWE trading card game WWE Raw Deal, which used your deck as your character’s “health”. That game had a lot of issues that I didn’t take, but the idea of using your deck to track your HP instead of using an outside tracker on dice or pen and paper felt really elegant to me.

In a system like that, drawing cards meant essentially taking damage, and I thought it would be clever to combine that with a mechanism in which you could draw as many cards as you liked each turn. You could still play only one card per turn, and you discarded your hand at the end of each turn, so spending that life gave you more options but limited the power of what you were doing every turn.

“Countdown” received some very harsh feedback in my early rounds of testing. It seems obvious in retrospect, but getting to draw a lot of cards and having a lot of new options to consider every single turn was overwhelming. The criticism was definitely warranted, but at the time, it was demoralizing, and I shelved the design entirely.

First build of “Countdown”; the rock/paper/scissors format for abilities let you do bonus damage if your opponent played the matching letter

Reckoning (2014)

The mechanical part of “Countdown” that I liked and salvaged wasn’t even one of the original pillars of its design. Taking a look at your opponent’s options and trying to outmaneuver them was the successful part of “Countdown” and the one I carried through to “Reckoning”.

“Reckoning” was heavily D&D-inspired. Many of the classes, and the role system itself, were inspired directly from D&D’s 4th Edition. Characters could have 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12 HP, with the idea being that you would track them with the standard set of polyhedral dice.

In “Reckoning”, you built a party of four heroes, having two in front and two in back. Each hero would contribute two ability cards to a full hand of eight. Each player would play two of their abilities each round. Your played abilities would go on cooldown for one round, then you’d get them back at the end of the round.

Early build of “Reckoning”, October 2014

The five roles were color-coded because I was making the prototypes in a program designed for making Magic cards. I had a big emphasis on making sure the game was 50/50 gender split and tried to make sure the physical and magical characters were split along that line as well.

The cooldown system and a lot of the class concepts ended up (to some degree) in the final version, but the game got repetitive quickly. The one-turn cooldown was added so that you wouldn’t play the same abilities over and over, but with a static one-turn delay, you were frequently playing your best two abilities the first turn, your second-best two abilities the second turn, then alternating between those all game.

Rise of the Paragons (2015)

“Rise of the Paragons” cut the game down from four characters to two, then later back up to three, but each character played one ability each round instead of just picking from a jumble. The key difference was that each ability went on cooldown until that hero played Rest. This was the saving grace of the game, and it was inspired by a mechanism I adored from the HeroClix miniatures game. In HeroClix, you had to rest after one or two actions, and resting after taking two actions in a row gave your character fatigue penalties, so you had to carefully choose when to play it safe and when to push yourself harder.

Early “Rise of the Paragons” design, March 2016. Characters had speeds to determine who would act first; also, due to space concerns, I had to be mindful of my letter count for abilities

A lot of the systems were working well, but having to manage three separate characters was complicated, and it took up a lot of table space. I cut it down to a 2v2, and that fixed many of those issues. The problem with this build ended up being a dominant strategy in which you would focus both of your character’s attacks on one of your opponent’s characters. After you defeated one character, you left them able to play only one ability a turn to your two. Even if both your characters were low on HP, the 2v1 was impossible to come back from.

I tried a lot of different solutions to solve this issue, and the only one that led to fair gameplay was letting the two characters share a health pool. The design played great, but thematically it made no sense. I had to adjust the creative.

Why would two characters share a single health pool? Why, if they were two pilots, both helping control the same giant mech! The new creative was an instant hit, reminiscent of the Pacific Rim movie from a few years earlier. The new theming also opened up new design space: having your two characters work together to unleash combo attacks. Additionally, the game gained a “growth curve” in which you would unlock more powerful abilities and upgrades over time, and the upgrades were shared between the players.

Early “Mech Paragons” prototype, July 2018. Double-wide playmat for both players on a team to play on, with ability cards tucked into the big character cards because they were small envelopes

It was possible to play both hands as a 1v1 game, but the game was way more fun when you had four players instead of two, with each player controlling one character in a 2v2 game. Secretly scheming with your buddy while trying to eavesdrop on what your opponents were playing added a fun dynamic. Things were going well for the game, and with this new confidence, I took it on the road and began pitching the game. I brought it to a publisher “speed dating” event at Gen Con 2018 to try to get it signed.

Publishers who played the game loved it and had a blast, but the feedback I received surprised me. Time after time, every publisher told me that a 2v2-only game was not right for the market. I thought it was an untapped niche that would be interesting to go after, but nobody was interested in publishing a game that supported only 2v2 play. It was back to the drawing board.

I still spent a lot of time that same weekend in the open playtesting room, trying to get it polished. During one playtesting game, I overheard someone say, “This is it! This was the game I had been trying to find!” That man was Breeze Grigas of Zephyr Workshop, who had published his own mech design, the tactical wargame A.E.G.I.S.: Combining Robot Strategy Game. Breeze had seen the game on Facebook through a social media post, and as a lover of giant robots, wanted to learn all about it. While we had chatted about Zephyr Workshop publishing the game, that didn’t pan out, but we would eventually do a partnership in which A.E.G.I.S. got its own crossover box.

Breeze Grigas (left) tries “Paragons” for the first time at Gen Con 2018

Pocket Paragons (2019)

The next year, I was waiting in line to get my 2019 Gen Con badge. The line was about three hours long, and I was outside sweating in the summer sun. In my boredom, I realized that I was standing in a line with a bunch of dedicated board gamers, all with no games to play. I thought, “Man, anyone walking by with a game you could play while waiting in line would make a killing.”

Since I had time to kill and a board game that remained unpublished, I brainstormed chopping “Rise of the Paragons” down into a much smaller game that could be played while waiting in line. By cutting a lot of the complexity in the desire to make the game portable, I streamlined it into a much better game.

The main game rewarded you for predicting when your opponent would be recovering their discarded cards with a keyworded mechanism called “Critical” in which you would deal double damage. In the revamp, I took that mechanism and pushed it further, letting you instantly kill the enemy. It was a much shorter game, after all, and while an instant win mechanism wouldn’t work in an hour-long game, it was incredible for a five-minute game. This new mechanism added a lot of tense moments and exciting comebacks, and it single-handedly made the game what it is today.

The new, quicker version of the game was instantly a big hit, and the 2v2 version of the game was put on the backburner indefinitely. I wanted to keep a small version of the growth curve of “Mech Paragons” with the characters getting more powerful over time, so I trimmed that down to a smaller system in which each character had one Ultimate ability they could unlock later in the game.

I took the game to a designer retreat in Maine, where I got a lot of great feedback that gave me renewed confidence that this was the correct direction for the game to go in. It reignited my passion in a game that had gone a long time without seeing the light of day.

The wonderful group of designers at the Maine Game Design Retreat in December 2019

During this retreat, I was advised to cut the game down from twenty characters to eight, which was heartbreaking at first, but doing smaller boxes would end up being the last feature the game needed as it opened up opportunities to do crossovers with other IPs. The first of those IPs was Temporal Odyssey, which was a game published by my old high school friend Chris Solis, who had started his own company, Solis Game Studio. Chris picked up my design and published it, and I don’t think that would’ve been possible without having the flexibility to do a crossover box with a new creative.

That crossover model led to even more amazing things as the years went by. We got to do a crossover with A.E.G.I.S. Combining Robots, which was incredible, given that its designer Breeze Grigas was one of the few people who had faith in the game during its rough patches. We got to do a crossover with the Rivals of Aether video game, and that opened up Pocket Paragons to the fighting game community, which has shown a ton of support for the game. And in recent years, we did a crossover with Penny Arcade’s Acquisition Incorporated world, and in July 2023 we announced a crossover with Image Comics and its Massive-Verse comic line!

It’s been a tremendous weight off my shoulders to see Pocket Paragons become a reality! And I got to fulfill my own prophecy and hand out demo decks to people waiting in line at Gen Con 2023. Although it’s been through so many redesigns and overhauls, each version taught me something that has made the game what it is today, and I’m excited for what the future holds for Pocket Paragons!

Brian McKay


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